Soldiers in a market in Suarez, Cauca. Under President Alvaro Uribe, the Colombian military launched an all-out offensive against FARC guerrillas. The army maintains an uneasy presence in areas still under rebel influence but has been accused of skirting human rights—including working with brutal paramilitary elements—to maintain control. All images credit: Michael Norby and Brian Fitzpatrick
From the sixth-floor window of a Bogotá hotel, a flourishing capital is manifest. A hive of activity, it looks every bit the rejuvenated city it is billed as—the pacified centerpiece of a country that has gone to extraordinary lengths in an attempt to shed its violent skin. There are no visible reminders of the carnage that swallowed it whole in the mid-twentieth-century before widening its jaws to consume the rest of the country—at least not from this vantage point.
“It’s easy to forget how Colombia used to be,” says John Walters, US drug czar during the George W. Bush administration. “The violence was just staggering. You get used to how it is now and forget about the sacrifices that were made, but this has been a remarkable turnaround.”
Since October 2012, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and the government have been talking peace. The signs are good: On May 26 the two sides announced a breakthrough land reform deal, an agreement that will be critical to any lasting accord.
The nation’s murder rate—once among the highest on the planet—is at a thirty-year low and kidnappings in most major urban areas are a thing of the past. Official statistics show that foreign investment is up while labor-related killings are down.
In 2002, the war-weary Colombian people elected Álvaro Uribe, a hardliner who had campaigned on a pledge to eliminate the guerrilla insurgency spearheaded by FARC. Funded by billions of US taxpayer dollars of mostly military aid to support counternarcotics and counterinsurgency efforts, Uribe throttled FARC and convinced right-wing paramilitary group the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) to demobilize.
Uribe’s defense minister, Juan Manuel Santos, took over the presidency in 2010 and continued his mentor’s aggressive policies. Large swaths of the country were pacified and the government’s chokehold on FARC tightened until the group was forced to make a move.
“The real change was Uribe,” says Walters. “We provided a lot of assistance and aid to a lot of different places, but you cannot substitute for the leaders of a partner country who are able, dedicated and courageous. During his presidency he not only systematically defeated FARC and the AUC but he also created a country.”
The payoff came in October 2011, when the US Congress passed the US-Colombia Trade Promotion Agreement (CTPA), widely referred to as a free-trade agreement. Supporters of the deal insist it promotes economic growth in both countries, creating thousands of jobs in the process.
The initiative immediately eliminated tariffs on 80 percent of US consumer and industrial exports and will phase out the remainder in the coming years. The International Trade Commission estimates a $1.1 billion expansion of US exports to Colombia, and advocates say it levels the playing field for US businesses in a country whose exporters already enjoyed trade preferences with the United States.
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If you walk through Bogotá’s historic La Candelaria district, things seem to be on track. The unmistakable swagger of suited foreign business people and tourists, both now woven into the fabric of the city, are symptomatic of a growing economy in a secure environment.
But in Plaza de Bolívar, the capital’s iconic central square, comes the first sign of the humanitarian crisis that rights groups are struggling to cope with. Fifty or so families line the square holding placards; some grasping pictures of loved ones. A man with a bullhorn is lobbying for attention, determined to convince ambivalent passers-by that reports of a miraculous turnaround in Colombia are greatly exaggerated.
These are a tiny fraction of what is the world’s largest population of internally displaced people, refugees in their own country. According to Colombian NGO Consultoria para los Derechos Humanos y el Desplazamiento (CODHES), more than 5.4 million IDPs—over 10 percent of the nation’s entire population—have been displaced since 1985.
While the IDP crisis predates both of their tenures, roughly half have been displaced in the years since Uribe took office in 2002, and the number continues to rise under Santos. According to CODHES, 259,000 additional Colombians became internal refugees in 2011.
A young refugee at the 13 de Mayo settlement, Villavicencio, Meta. At 5.4 million, Colombia has the highest number of internally displaced people in the world.
This is what many activists and rights groups believe will be the real legacy of both men: the advancement of a blueprint drawn up decades ago to not only obliterate the insurgency but destroy organized labor and drive huge numbers of rural Colombians from their homes and farms, many of which sit on some of the richest land in the world.
Agricultural provisions within the trade agreement force Colombian farmers to compete against heavily subsidized US products that can now flood the market unhindered. The results are forecast to be devastating. An Oxfam report estimates that the average income of 1.8 million grossly under-protected small farmers will fall by 16 percent.
The study concludes that 400,000 farmers who now live below the minimum wage will see their incomes drop by up to 70 percent and will thus be forced out of their livelihoods. The alternatives open to them will only add to the misery and violence that continue to grow in rural Colombia: Oxfam’s findings mirror what the Colombian government, years before the agreement passed, feared would transpire should the CTPA be signed without addressing its many shortcomings.
In 2004, Colombia’s Ministry of Agriculture said that a trade agreement without adequate agricultural protections would leave rural Colombians with “no more than three options: migration to the cities or to other countries…working in drug cultivation zones, or affiliating with illegal armed groups.”
New CODHES figures appear to corroborate these findings, with their most recent report showing that mass displacements jumped an incredible 83 percent in 2012, mostly in areas affected by the CTPA.
The push for a trade agreement began—along with Uribe’s presidency—under a hail of rocket fire. On August 7, 2002, during his inauguration ceremony, a FARC mortar team launched several shells that exploded near the presidential palace, killing twenty-one people.
As co-chair of the US delegation to Uribe’s swearing-in, Walters witnessed the carnage. With him was then–US Trade Representative Robert Zoellick, who was present to demonstrate to the people of Colombia that, as Walters recalls, Washington “had larger interests with Colombia.”
Uribe immediately launched an all-out offensive. Colombian troops, newly armed with state-of-the-art US hardware, systematically eliminated FARC from urban areas and corralled the rebels into rural pockets where they could be contained.
Critics attacked Uribe’s aggression, claiming that the military flagrantly skirted human rights and continued to work hand-in-glove with AUC death squads, which rampaged throughout rural Colombia on a murderous land-grabbing spree. In January of this year, Colombia’s attorney general began investigating Uribe for his ties to paramilitaries during his time as governor of Antioquia in the 1990s.
“These wars are difficult and there was a lot of ugliness,” Walters says. “At times we had to investigate and push the military to be more forthright. Some of these things have to be done quietly. You can’t have these discussions about the internal affairs of a partner nation in a press conference—you have to do it privately.”
The demobilization of the AUC in 2006 was heralded as a major step forward and coincided with the first attempt to pass the CTPA through Congress. Some 30,000 AUC fighters gave up their weapons, but many simply formed new groups, labeled bandas criminales (Bacrim).
With names like Rastrojos and Urabeños, the Bacrim continue to target rural Colombians and labor unions. Like the AUC, they work closely with elements of the Colombian military and have enjoyed political favor.
The testimony of former paramilitary leaders in what is known as the Justice and Peace process forced Colombia’s Supreme Court to investigate members of Congress accused of collaborating with the paramilitaries. More than 150 congressmen and women have been investigated and fifty-five have been convicted; it’s the tip of the iceberg. Last summer, research group Verdad Abierta reported that more than 11,000 politicians, officials and businessmen might have been corrupted.
Unwilling to pass the CTPA amid concerns over human rights abuses, especially those leveled against trade unions, Congress rejected the bill in 2008. “It became so polarized with some organized labor organizations in the United States,” says Walters. “The trade agreement was almost entirely one-sided—giving the United States trade concessions that it hadn’t had before—but we couldn’t get it passed.”
With the election of Barack Obama in 2008, hopes of reviving the CTPA seemed dead in the water. As a candidate, Obama had spoken out strongly against the agreement, citing continuing violence leveled at trade unionists, which “would make a mockery of the very labor protections that we’ve insisted be included in these kinds of agreements.”
A Colombian soldier watches a checkpoint in Caloto, Cauca.
Two years after his victory, however, President Obama was promoting the CTPA and has called it a win-win for both nations. In April 2011, he enacted a Labor Action Plan to ensure that the Colombian government would act to stop violence against unionists.
“It was a cover,” argues Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “The Labor Action Plan was used as an ameliorative to try and overcome the outrage in Congress over the United States associating itself with a government responsible for the single highest rates of unionist assassinations. That’s what the Labor Action Plan was about.”
Meanwhile, Obama’s partner in Colombia, the newly elected Santos, was heralded as a fresh start for the country, a more pragmatic and open leader. Others warned that he was Machiavellian, a fraud. To those suffering from the violence, he offered no change.
“They are the same,” insists Francisco Ramírez Cuellar, former president of Sintraminercol, the Colombian mineworkers union. “They just talk a different talk. Uribe’s [rhetoric] was more aggressive and violent, but nothing has changed.”
Ramírez, who escaped several attempts on his life during his time as Sintraminercol president, explains the drop in union assassinations by citing the corresponding decline in union membership rates, from 14 percent at the start of Uribe’s tenure to just 4 percent today. In other words, there are fewer trade unionists to kill, a claim supported by Stephen Benedict, human rights director at the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). He expects little will change.
“They have done their job,” says Benedict about the Bacrim. “The number of assassinations will eventually go down. It’s been the system, it has worked in the past, and it continues to work today. It’s preposterous for these governments to claim that they are heading democracies. What kind of democracy is it when you can’t even try to organize a trade union?”
Despite impassioned pleas in Colombia and the United States that such an agreement would add fuel to an already raging fire, the CTPA was passed in October 2011.
Human rights and labor lawyer Daniel Kovalik was among many who urged the Obama administration not to sign. Pointing to the recent record of US companies in the region, he feels a bill issuing more corporate privileges and encouraging more nefarious behavior should have been avoided.
“Unions in the US and Colombia begged him not to push it through,” Kovalik says. “There are very real concerns of unionists being killed there, but [Obama] did it anyway. If the American people fully understood what is going on, what is happening to preserve our opulent lifestyles, then I’d like to think that they would protest.”
Reports of Colombia’s progress have dominated international media coverage; especially since peace negotiations were announced last summer. Little airtime or column inches have been dedicated to the victims of the violence or the displaced millions.
“The biggest challenge for all the humanitarian agencies working here is to tell the outside world that there is a humanitarian crisis in Colombia,” says Terry Morel, UN High Commissioner for Refugees representative in Colombia. “It’s difficult to imagine the reality when you’re sitting in Bogotá.”
This sentiment is repeated by virtually all NGOs and human rights organizations that have worked furiously to illustrate the hidden story.
The numbers are astonishing.
In its 2013 World Report, Human Rights Watch reported that Colombia’s attorney general’s office was investigating 1,727 cases of extrajudicial killings involving almost 3,000 victims, allegedly carried out by state agents between 2004 and 2008. The report also stated that additional cases were reported in 2011 and 2012. As of August of last year, 539 army members (seventy-seven officers) had been convicted—fewer than 10 percent of cases.
A constitutional amendment secured by Santos late last year threatens to transfer cases of military atrocities from civilian courts to the military justice system. HRW says the move “would virtually guarantee impunity for such crimes.” Santos served as defense minister from 2006 to 2009, a period that saw his military implicated in some of the most sordid crimes of the entire conflict.
The ITUC reported that thirty-five unionists were murdered in Colombia in 2012, solidifying the country’s status as the most dangerous place on earth to be a union member. Between 3,000 and 4,000 Colombian unionists have been killed since the late 1980s.
Colombian NGO Somos Defensores reported that attacks on human rights defenders reached a ten-year high in 2012. A total of sixty-nine were murdered, up from forty-nine in 2011. Of 357 total acts of aggression, the Bacrim were blamed for 41 percent, state actors and guerrillas were responsible for 13 percent and 9 percent respectively, and the remaining culprits were unknown.
Once a splintered network of autonomous death squads, the Bacrim are now consolidating and becoming more powerful. A June 2012 report by the International Crisis Group put their numbers between 4,800 and 8,000. Colombian think tank Nuevo Arco Iris reports that the Bacrim have condensed from thirty-three groups in 2006 to just six in 2012 and have expanded their presence to 337 of Colombia’s 1,119 municipalities.
Captain Felipe Bonilla inspects three tons of seized marijuana at the headquarters of the army’s 14th Mobile Brigade, Caloto, Cauca.
The US State Department has made it illegal for US corporations to associate with the Bacrim, not that the terror tag has stopped them in the past. In 2007, US company Chiquita Brands International was fined $25 million in a plea agreement with the US Justice Department after it admitted paying the AUC, a designated terror group, $1.7 million from 1997 to 2004. The company, then represented by current US Attorney General Eric Holder, claimed extortion, but documents in a current civil lawsuit allege that Chiquita also transported 3,000 Kalashnikov rifles and millions of rounds of ammunition for use by the death squads.
This past December, the Colombian attorney general reopened a criminal investigation into the relationship between the banana giant and the AUC. Other US corporations have been accused of paying death squads to—among other alleged charges—kill trade unionists. Lawsuits against Coca-Cola Bottlers and Dole Food Company were dismissed, but proceedings against Alabama-based Drummond Coal on behalf of victims’ relatives are ongoing.
“It’s really sick,” says Robert Scott, director of trade and manufacturing policy at the Economic Policy Institute, a strong critic of the CTPA. “US multinationals have been associated with helping to fund some of these paramilitary death squads that are operating in Colombia. You have to understand, the motivation for negotiating these trade agreements on the part of multinational businesses is to drive down their cost of production, take advantage of low wages and take advantage of a totally de-unionized labor environment.”
Just as the CTPA threatens to exacerbate the already obscene levels of violence taking place outside the sphere of the government’s conflict with FARC, many feel that the peace talks alone will not halt the humanitarian disaster.
“Peace between FARC and the government might end the internal armed conflict as formally stated,” says the UN’s Morel. “But it will not lead to an end to the violence. I think there is an awareness of that, an understanding.”
Gimena Sánchez-Garzoli, senior fellow at the Washington Office on Latin America, is in full agreement, even anticipating an increase in violence if FARC and the government come to terms. “There is going to be a surge in violence,” she says, outlining her concern over the government’s failure to deal with the Bacrim. “It’s not looking good. Sadly, what I am sensing here is that there is a peace process and everything is resolved, and that is incredibly far from the case.”
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Buenaventura is under the control of paramilitary groups. An upsurge of violence has accompanied a massive port expansion project to facilitate the CTPA.
Nowhere is the frantic effort to facilitate the CTPA—and its relationship with the Bacrim—more visible than in the southwestern city of Buenaventura, where a massive port expansion threatens thousands with forced eviction. Those who protest are summarily dealt with.
Ground zero for the CTPA and the most important port city in the country, locals here are under no illusions as to who calls the shots. The government may have labeled the death squads “Bacrim,” but to those staring down the barrels of their guns, the enemy hasn’t changed.
“All of Buenaventura is controlled by paramilitaries,” says one community leader, running through the names of the various groups. “There was no demobilization. It didn’t happen. They are still operating.”
At the headquarters of the Colombian Process of Black Communities (PCN), community leaders describe the horrors of life under the paramilitaries. They’re happy to be associated with PCN, but not one is willing to be named as an individual; too many of their colleagues have been butchered for speaking out.
There is little protection. While FARC guerrillas claim to be the voice of the people, they have cut deals with the paramilitaries in recent times, allowing them to kill freely in exchange for safe passage of rebel drugs and guns. Even onetime FARC sympathizers suspect that while the guerrillas have their sights set on peace, lucrative parcels of land are their preferred return. In Colombia’s war, there are no good guys.
When the AUC first wrapped its tentacles around Buenaventura, in 1998, those who protested could be heard screaming as night fell—dismembered alive in the barrios. Nowadays, most victims simply vanish; their body parts are often put on display later as a warning to others. In January, the discovery of twenty-three such victims prompted the local authorities to promise an investigation and spurred the Catholic Church to take action.
One local woman describes how on August 1, 2011, thirty armed men came to take possession of her neighborhood, La Gloria. She accuses local law enforcement of playing an active role.
“The authorities know all about this,” she says. “At the entrance, you can see the paramilitaries sitting, talking with the police. So they know all this. The paramilitaries are raping girls and women, cutting pieces off them and throwing them into the creek. All this is happening, so in what context can we talk about peace?”
Despite the danger, community leaders have produced reports, made trips abroad and are constantly reaching out to politicians and rights groups in the United States. Death threats come by text, e-mail or via a note under the door, but they feel they have no option. They believe action will only come with outside pressure.
Congressman Hank Johnson, a Democrat from Georgia, voted against the CTPA and is a member of the Congressional Monitoring Group on Labor Rights in Colombia. He has hosted delegations from affected communities. “They are so courageous, they will even come to America and meet with congressional representatives,” he says. “They know that when they go back, the people who are hurting them know that they have been here.”
The barrio of La Playita in Buenaventura is scheduled to be demolished, making way for a tourism project. The tree line across the bay is a suspected mass cemetery, filled with bodies of locals.
The CTPA, he insists, is another nail in their coffin. “It’s economic exploitation. To understand that our government has helped to foster the businesses that exploit people is not something that I am comfortable with at all. That’s why I must continue to speak out.”
Wallach, who has been studying such agreements for twenty years with Global Trade Watch, says she has never seen the merging of a trade agreement with terror like this. Not on this scale. “It’s obscene,” she says. “Colombia is unique. It is above and beyond. I have seen lots of bad things, but Colombia is in a totally different category. We are giving away all potential economic leverage in our relationship with a country that has [a history of] horrific human rights violations.”
Still, though, the leaders we talk to have no intention of giving up. They keep going, as one says, “because someone has to.”
“We know the risk,” they reply at PCN, when asked if the fight is worth the price. “We love our territories and we will keep going, even if that means that we lose our lives.”
In the seaside barrio of La Playita, a young child, no more than 6 years old, stands beneath a palm tree looking out across the bay. His eyes are fixed on the tree line of an island a mile or so from the shore. To make way for a planned tourism project, his neighborhood is scheduled for demolition.
It would be comforting to think that the boy is unaware of what he is looking at as he stares out into the distance: The island is a suspected mass grave, filled with the body parts of executed locals. At PCN, however, they remind us that in Buenaventura, no one is spared the brutal reality. “The children are exposed to this,” says the woman from La Gloria. “They have seen it because it happens in front of everybody, in daylight. They are killing people every single day. It’s a horrible situation.”